By Peter Filichia
See the current revival of On the Town on Broadway, and you’ll hear three sailors proclaim “New York, New York -- a helluva town.”
See the 1949 film version and you’ll instead hear the three sailors insist “New York, New York – a wonderful town.”
“Helluva” was a bit profane for Hollywood sixty-five years ago, so Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the show’s lyricists, were forced to find a new three syllable word. Little did they know then that they were writing the title of a musical they’d eventually do four years later: Wonderful Town.
They weren’t supposed to work on this musical version of My Sister Eileen, in which budding writer Ruth Sherwood and would-be actress Eileen come to New York, have some harrowing misadventures and then convince us that they’ll be all right. Rosalind Russell would star, and getting her was a coup for fledgling producer Robert Fryer. She’d played the man-deprived Ruth in the 1942 film version of the 1940 Broadway hit, and had received an Oscar nomination. For Wonderful Town, she’d win a Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical.
Comden, Green and composer Leonard Bernstein certainly had a great part in her success – but they weren’t even associated with the show when Russell had signed. Leroy Anderson had already written the music and Arnold B. Horwitt the lyrics, but only a month before the start of rehearsals, director George Abbott and his songwriters parted company because he and Russell didn’t like the score.
One has to wonder how many – if any – of the melodies Anderson recycled into his 1958 score for Goldilocks. If the answer is “Many,” I’m inclined to side with Anderson, for the music in that show is glorious. (There’s a subject for a future column!)
Whatever the case, Abbott contacted the three writers to whom he had given their Big Broadway Break less than a decade earlier via On the Town. In the ensuing nine years, Comden and Green had written three musicals while Bernstein had been less Broadway-centric, penning music and lyrics to six songs for a production of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (albeit not the same Peter Pan that Mary Martin would make famous in 1954).
The irony is that Bernstein might have said no to Wonderful Town if the project were starting from square one, with no libretto, producer or director in place. However, Bernstein would be willing, to quote Ruth after they rent the frightful apartment for a month, to “do thirty days.”
The result was a Best Musical Tony-winner – the only time Bernstein ever copped that prize – and 559 performances, longer than what On the Town could amass. Columbia Pictures came calling, but Bernstein wanted more than the studio was willing to pay, so a new movie musical of My Sister Eileen was made using that original title. The music was by the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes team of composer Jule Styne and lyricist Leo Robin. It’s good – but not as good as the score for Wonderful Town.
After the film came and went, the creators (who included, of course, bookwriters Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov, who’d also written the play), sold the property to CBS. It commissioned a slightly truncated version that aired fifty-six years ago this month with Russell reprising her role. Columbia Records released the recording from this effort, which is still available via Masterworks Broadway after all these years. It contains all fourteen songs that were heard in the stage show, and was the first recording of the score in stereo.
Fourteen was also the number of stories written in the late ‘30s by Ruth McKenney about her sister Eileen, who was a year younger. Thus, despite Eileen’s assertion that “Irish I’m not” in “My Darlin’ Eileen,” she and Ruth were “Irish twins.” McKenney also admits that both of them stuttered, a fact that was mercifully omitted from both play and musical.
The stories were originally published in The New Yorker and then subsequently in book form. People usually assume that the play and/or the musical incorporated elements from all fourteen stories, but Fields and Chodorov only borrowed from the final two: “Mr. Spitzer and the Fungus” (subtitled “The Housing Situation in Greenwich Village and How Dismal It Is”) and “Beware the Brazilian Navy” (or “Almost the Worst Thing That Ever Happened to Us”).
Although Wonderful Town’s writers stressed that the Sherwood’s new residence on Christopher Street was a sty, they drew the line at mentioning the fungus that had turned their bathroom ceiling green. It is disgusting rather than funny, isn’t it?
The musical’s football-playing “Wreck” was actually Georgie, who "had enough hair on his chest to stuff a pillow" that "was clearly visible" because "Georgie seldom wore anything but basketball shorts and tennis shoes." Costume designer Raoul Pene Du Bois more demurely put him in a sleeveless T-shirt. But the Sherwood Girls weren’t as innocent as they’re portrayed in the musical, for they weren’t above having a bottle of gin on the premises. (And weren’t they rankled when they found the fifth had been stolen!)
McKenney mentioned that Eileen liked doing the ‘30s dance phenomenon “The Conga.” Luckily for the writers, the dance was enjoying an early ‘50s renaissance, so Bernstein, Comden and Green took advantage and wrote “Conga!” – which is all the sailors want to do while Ruth is desperately trying to interview them.
In the short story, the Brazilians were more genteel. When Ruth finally made them understand the word "hot," they immediately brought her into the shade and fetched her an iced drink. After she left them, the sailors did follow her home, but not until they’d first made an appearance in her office.
This shows us that Ruth was on a Manhattan newspaper staff and wasn't a just-starting-out freelancer as the musical has her. In fact, even when she was in college at Ohio State, she was high enough on the school newspaper’s food chain to be assigned an interview with Winston Churchill’s son Randolph (with whom she spent most of their time together trying to help him locate his missing sock).
And yet, the two New York stories were enough to launch a show that received seven raves from the seven daily newspaper critics. “Everyone is more inspired than usual … some extraordinarily inventive lyrics in a style as unhackneyed as the music” (Atkinson, Times). “A Broadway score of remarkable quality … The new toast of the town is its wonderful star” (Chapman, News). “Wonderful Town, wonderful show, wonderful Rosalind Russell” (Hawkins, World- Telegram & Sun). “She finds no fewer than four joyous opportunities for stopping the show in its well-oiled tracks” (Kerr, Herald Tribune).
There were, however, musical possibilities in the other dozen stories, all of which took place in Ohio, although Ruth did tell of vacationing with a friend in Poland where they were both thought to be spies. Many tales involve their father, who found his daughters hard to handle. How furious he was that they went to see Noel Coward’s then-racy The Vortex and planned to follow it up with a visit to the profane What Price Glory?
Although Wonderful Town did make Eileen the far prettier of the two, Ruth’s looks weren’t described as severely as McKenney saw herself in real life -- not only "as homely as a mud fence" but also as "the homeliest girl in East Cleveland" (which would have made her good fodder for Mr. Applegate). Perhaps she was exaggerating, for Ruth did tell of a Cleveland beau -- a Georgian prince, no less, who was all too willing to kill a rival for her affections. (That’s a fine way to lose a man.)
A Georgian prince, an incensed father, the Polish police on your tail? While musical sequels haven’t done well – Annie 2, Annie Warbucks, Bring Back Birdie – one does rather wish that Fields, Chodorov, Bernstein, Comden and Green had taken these stories and more and had fashioned Wonderful Town 2. We’ll just have to enjoy the terrific work the songwriters did produce – and under pressure far worse than enduring a fungus-coated ceiling.